As I discussed back in May, I have wanted to go to South Africa for many, many years and I’m so happy that 2012 is the year it’s happening. In service to the many people in real life who tell me, “I don’t know how you plan these big trips,” I’m working through the steps that will take me from Halifax, Nova Scotia to South Africa.
Who, where, when, how
The longest part of this year’s trip planning was getting through the broader details settled. When I first floated this idea almost two years ago, another friend wanted to go with me, then another one. Great! Three people! A list of places to go and things to do was started. It got out of hand very quickly, as South Africa is a big, big country. Time passed, and I appeared to be the only one still keen to do it, so I spent a lot of July 2012 exploring my travel options for November.
Anyone who does a lot of solo travel and travel planning will tell you it’s a lot of work. The clock was ticking: I had to request my autumn vacation leave well in advance, since I was requesting three weeks of leave. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia experienced its best summer in weather history (probably), I was on the go constantly and just wasn’t getting anywhere with my plans.
A chance encounter through Twitter with a local adventure travel company changed everything. I thanked the Halifax office of the Adventure Travel Company for sharing one of my posts, and being business-minded folks, they responded with, “If you ever need a quote …”
I sent them a detailed email with approximate travel dates and the kinds of activities I’d like to do. I’d mentioned I had really positive small group travel experiences in the past, but was having difficulty finding a group tour to my liking. After giving an approximate budget, I clicked send and waited to see what happened.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve been planning and booking all of my own travel for almost 15 years, but I’m woman enough to admit when I’m wrong. ATC came back with a small group tour by an African specialist and found well-priced flights on a flagship carrier. The minute my vacation request was approved, I booked.
To keep everything organized from this point, I set up a Dropbox folder for flight documents, the trip itinerary, a digital copy of my passport, my to-do list, and any other digital “thing” I collect along the way. I’ll be able to access this info while traveling through my iPod Touch, or any computer with internet access.
As for the how, I have the money for the trip saved and ready to go. The short version, I transfer an amount every payday to my travel fund, then supplement it with any “found money” that comes my way: tax refunds, retroactive pay, occasional earnings from blogging, plus, I hoard loonies and toonies (that’s Canadian English for $1 and $2 coins) and deposit them, too. It all adds up!
Filling in the gaps
With the big items on my itinerary taken care of, I had to fill in the next-biggest gaps. My trip starts in Johannesburg, so the only remaining hurdle was an airport transfer and accommodation. The accommodation was pretty straightforward since we are leaving at approximately 5:00 am the next morning, I’m staying at the meeting hostel for the tour. It seemed illogical to find other accommodations and then try and figure out how to get to the departure point before 5:00 in the morning. The hostel also arranges airport transfers, which I am going to use. In most circumstances, I’d use public transport or find a taxi when I arrive, but since I’m arriving around 9:30 at night, it seems far easier and safer to have someone waiting for me with my name on a sign.
A couple more emails back and forth, and my accommodation and airport transfer was booked and paid for.
As for Cape Town at the end of my trip, I’ve found a couple of really promising spots and I’ll confirm them in the next couple of weeks. I’ll search for accommodations across several sites, looking at the same place on a few sites and checking reviews by different types of travelers. However, knowing I can tolerate things like some noise and a shared bathroom, I take reviews with a grain of salt.
I also check out potential accommodations by Googling them independent of search sites with terms like “[HOTEL NAME] bad” or “images,” then, check out the Google Street View for the neighbourhoods for proximity to banks, metro stations, and restaurants.
Travel and health insurance
I tend to be on a more risk-averse side of things, but getting travel and health insurance is non-negotiable. The health insurance is required as a condition of the group tour, and the travel insurance does what insurance is supposed to do: cover the unexpected. With the travel points credit card I use for my bookings, there is 15-day health insurance coverage and pretty decent travel insurance covering trip interruption, flight delay and baggage. I contacted the company and arranged for an extension to my health benefit coverage for approximately $20.
I requested a letter for the proof of insurance coverage, which is on the way, plus, I downloaded the coverage documents for the other travel insurance and saved it in my Dropbox.
Share your best trip planning tips in the comments! Or, if you have Cape Town suggestions for me, post those in the comments!